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Pianist Jessica Williams

A woman with long silver hair looks down as she holds her right hand up to her chin.
Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
Pianist Jessica Williams in August 2010.

Celebrated for her absolute control of the keyboard, her wit, and her solid sense of swing, the brilliant pianist and composer Jessica Williams was known for her devotion to music. Robin Lloyd has a remembrance of this remarkable artist.

Jessica Williams was born in Baltimore and classically trained at the Peabody Conservatory of Music.

In the 1970’s, when Williams became the house pianist at the famous Keystone Korner jazz club in San Francisco, she had the opportunity to work with all kinds of jazz greats — like saxophonists Eddie Harris and Dexter Gordon, drummer Tony Williams, bassists Charlie Haden and Leroy Vinnegar, and many others.

One of her first compositions, “Soldaji” was inspired by her performances with the Brazilian jazz-fusion band lead by Airto Moreira and Flora Purim. Williams later dedicated it to her dear, departed Scottish Terrier, Watson.

The influence of Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane was evident in many of her compositions, like “Elbow Room.”

Jessica Williams received two Grammy nominations, two grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Rockefeller Grant for composing, the Alice B. Toklas Grant for Women Composers and the prestigious John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship.

She was an honored guest on public radio programs like Fresh Air with Terry Gross, and Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz. Williams also wrote musical scores for PBS and HBO programs.

Eight of her 50-or-so albums were released on the Seattle-based Origin Records label.

In the 1990s, Williams settled in Portland, Oregon, and later in Yakima, Washington. She created her own record label and music publishing company in an effort to retain control of her creative output.

Severe spinal problems sent Williams through major surgery in 2012. The medical procedures and recovery were lengthy, complicated and expensive. Unable to work, she ended up having to sell her beloved Yamaha piano.

Even after a diagnosis of atherosclerosis, Williams tried to stay positive, posting on her website, "I have decided that the best thing I can do for myself is to do what I do, and be who I am. I love my music, and I will soon release new music and begin performing again. There are many things to do, and I will start slow, but speed alone is not music — soul and passion are. I am not done."

Jessica Williams died March 10.

Originally from Detroit, Robin Lloyd has been presenting jazz, blues and Latin jazz on public radio for nearly 40 years. She's a member of the Jazz Education Network and the Jazz Journalists Association.